The idea of security

2022: the year of insecurity – Ukraine, Taiwan, Ethiopia, happening against a background, as my last blog post set out, of record military spending, with refugee numbers already at a record high. It is tempting to think that this means we need to junk woolly thoughts about human security and suchlike and get back to old-style basics, in which security lies in a strong defence, in power, to be blunt, and more of it than any adversary has. It’s what is called realism in the study of international relations and the realist temptation today seems strong.

It is the direction in which the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the confrontation between China and the USA over Taiwan seem to be pushing us. A return to realism, hardening up NATO against Russia, though it’s worth acknowledging that the demand to get Western policy ‘back to realism’ is a long-standing idea . But why ever and whenever, it’s all about recognising that, if you get into trouble, only the exertion of power will get you out and that’s how it’s been for thousands of years.

Mm-hmm, except that 2022 is also the year of climate change: drought in China and Europe, floods in Pakistan, both in the Horn of Africa, unfolding in a context of several other aspects of serious environmental deterioration, as my last blog post also set out.

And since this means that the mix of challenges on today’s security horizon is not only complex and worrisome but also unprecedented, it suggests there is a need to think hard about what we mean by security – the security of whom or what, and against what – and, indeed, to be ready to rethink.

Think Thucydides (and Machiavelli) (and Hobbes)

You can say this about realism in international relations (IR), that it’s been around a long time, or at least that’s what most IR realists say.

The genealogy is generally presented as stretching back through Hobbes in the post-civil war wreckage of 17th century England, via Machiavelli in early 16th century Italy, to the Greek historian Thucydides writing some 2,400 years ago.

I think it actually is a bit of a stretch to present an IR realist tradition spanning 24 centuries like that; there is a considerable amount of ahistorical projection going on. IR realist presentations of this tradition that I have seen over-read some passages of each author in the light of contemporary concerns. The Hellenic city states that Thucydides wrote about, the Renaissance statelets and principalities that Machiavelli knew, and even the early modern English state of Hobbes’s time were fundamentally different from today’s states and operated in quite different international environments. And all three authors were writing about much else besides how the rulers of their times did or could relate to each other.

That said, there is a common element in how these three very different writers understood the world and it does seem that this element, especially as deployed by Hobbes, is influential in 20th and 21st century IR realism, as put forward most effectively in my view by Hans J Morgenthau.

That common element is a bleak view of humankind.

People (or men at least) are rubbish

In Thucydides’ fictional Melian Dialogue, which is the bit of his work that everybody quotes, the delegates from Melos present their case for justice and fair treatment to the representatives of Athens, which is militarily much stronger than Melos. In response, one of the Athenians says that the Melians know as well as the Athenians do that the question of right only arises when power is equal. Otherwise, ‘(T)he strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.’ Whether this was actually Thucydides’ view is not at all clear but let’s not go into that here.

Machiavelli’s view of humanity is yet bleaker than the Athenian delegates’. In a famous passage, he discusses whether it is better for a prince, the ruler, to be loved or feared. He answers that both are good but, if the prince can only achieve one emotion among the people, it should be fear. Here’s why:

‘One can make this generalisation about men: they are ungrateful, fickle, liars, and deceivers, they shun danger and are greedy for profit; while you treat them well, they are yours. They would shed their blood for you, risk their property, their lives, their children, so long … as danger is remote; but when you are in danger they turn against you.’

From that generalisation comes the good sense and rationality of the prince, who wishes to remain a prince, being manipulative, deceitful, duplicitous and ready to be violent and cruel when necessary. A prince, Machiavelli writes a few pages later, ‘must understand how to make nice use of the beast and the man … a prince must know how to act according to the nature of both.’*

Though Hobbes is often bracketed with Machiavelli as a cynic, and though he had a comparably bleak view of humankind, there is a difference. Hobbes was an advocate of a strong state because without it, in their natural state, men would engage in a war ‘of every man, against every man’. And in that state there is no industry, art, architecture or culture; there is only ‘continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’ This is because nature disconnects men from each other and makes them ‘apt to invade and destroy one another.’**

Men put themselves under the authority of a sovereign in order to avoid these horrors but there is a further risk. Their proclivity for war in the state of nature transfers itself to the sovereign state: ‘at all times, kings, and persons of sovereign authority, because of their independency, are in continual jealousies, and in the state and posture of gladiators; having their weapons pointed at each other… which is a posture of war.’ However, though war between states is possible at any time, it doesn’t happen all the time, so individuals are safer with a strong state than without. But it is a condition of their safety that the state is strong against challenges from within and outside its borders alike.

And therefore …

It is worth dwelling a little on those three writers because the core of the argument in IR realism hinges on the question of what to do about the fallibility, selfishness and worse that are part of human nature.

Hans J Morgenthau was an intellectual giant of the study of international politics in the 20th century. His 1948 book, Politics among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, is widely seen as a if not the founding statement of IR realism.***

He explained the inevitability of rivalry between states, which Hobbes also stressed, as coming about because because ‘politics, like society in general, is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature.’ Central to these ‘objective laws,’ he asserted, is ‘the concept of interest defined in terms of power.’ For Morgenthau, the political realist ‘thinks of interest defined as power, as the economist thinks of interest defined as wealth.’ 

And thus, ‘International politics, like all politics, is a struggle for power,’ in pursuit of the national interest. 

This did not mean simply pursuing power by force; rather, for Morgenthau, in the interests of peace, diplomacy was about persuasion and negotiation as well as power and pressure, and could entail concessions on non-vital issues. Nonetheless, in his thinking, self-centred international behaviour is inevitable, realistic and natural – and therefore right.

With this, you can see why IR realists so often trace their intellectual lineage back to Thucydides. What mattered for Morgenthau, as for the Athenian delegates, was to understand that this is the nature of things and, given that reality, the right thing to do is to get the greatest advantage possible, measured in terms of power.

But …

There is a lot to be said for Morgenthau’s conception of politics and power. It is striking that, with that focus on national interest and power, he knew as early as 1955 that US policy in Vietnam would not work. He said so publicly in 1962 even while working for the Kennedy administration. He became an outspoken opponent of the US war in Vietnam and increasingly turned from arguments based on national interest to morality.

But looking back at him from today’s vantage point, it is clear that the core weakness in Morgenthau’s underlying theorizing of politics is the assertion that this is a science based on human nature. What he did not and perhaps could not recognize is our human connection with nature – the natural environment, the biosphere of which we are a part.

The first edition of his magnum opus came out in 1948. That is around the time that is regarded by many students of the natural environment and humans’ use of it as the beginning of ‘the Great Acceleration‘. It is the beginning of the nuclear age and the age of plastic. Since then world population has trebled, economic output has risen 13-fold, while the increase in the use of natural resources has been six times faster than population growth. And the cost of this economic progress is visible in the environmental crisis, which should now be a central issue in all our thinking about international policy, security and the economy.

If the natural environment on which we depend for our existence and for our common life decays beyond the tipping points of no-return, interest based on power becomes a second order concern at best. 

The idea that rivalry between states is the natural and proper order of things is the intellectual justification for conducting geopolitics in a way that undermines the prospects for cooperation on the world’s great security challenges. What we can see today, because we can now see the damage inflicted on the biosphere since the Great Acceleration began at around the time Morgenthau was writing, is that that kind of international behaviour is self-defeating and destructive. 

Morgenthau’s thinking and variants of it remain influential to this day. And the unthinking behaviour that we see too often from the great powers remains powerful. They are leading us down the wrong path.

Ecological realism

Politics and political relations must henceforth be conceptualised in relation to nature as such – not built on the flimsy foundation of a contestable interpretation of human nature.

To recognize that we face a planetary emergency is to recognise that basing state policy on the acquisition of as much power as possible in the national interest is entirely outmoded, wasteful and counter-productive because it is damaging to the interests of the people who make up the country. This could be branded ‘ecological realism‘ because preserving the biosphere is a core national – as well as human – interest.

Henceforth, national and international policies have to be rethought and reformulated in the light of a concept of interest based on the aim of achieving balance in the biosphere. While rivalries and contestations will remain, security will not be achieved by pursuing them. Rather, in the Anthropocene epoch, facing the complex mix of security issues that we do, the key element of security is cooperation.

It is that simple.

* My copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince is the one published by Penguin Classics in 1961. The two passages I quote from are pages 96 and 99. Newer editions may have modified some of the translation. For example, in the second quotation, the word “nice” probably carries the meaning of “precise” rather than “blandly pleasant”.

** My copy of Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes is also rather aged: it’s the 1962 edition, edited by Michael Oakeshott, published by Collier Macmillan. The passages summarised and quoted are from pages 100 and 101.

*** Morgenthau, H. J., Politics among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace (Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 1948); I have been using the 4th edition, published 1968. The quotations in the text are taken from different passages on pages 4, 5, 11, 25, 431 and 441.

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